Niceness isn't enough

by Rob Silberman

from Jump Cut, no. 33, Feb. 1988, pp. 37-41
copyright Jump Cut: A Review of Contemporary Media, 1988, 2006

WILDROSE raises an odd but important question: Is it possible for a film to be too nice for its own good? Directed by John Hanson, WILDROSE tells the story of June Lorich (played by Lisa Eichorn of YANKS and CUTTER'S WAY/ CUTTER AND BONE) and Rick Ogaard (Tom Bower of THE WALTONS and THE BALLAD OF GREGORIO CORTEZ), co-workers on the Iron Range in northern Minnesota. After they fall in love they must face the difficulties of combining love and work. When they are laid off, they are faced with new pressures because Rick moves back to Bayfield, Wisconsin to fish commercially on Lake Superior while June looks for a job and waits to be rehired at the mine. She spends time with Rick, but the movie ends with her returning to the Iron Range following news that the mine is about to reopen. As even this brief synopsis indicates, the movie addresses central issue of the 80s, especially for working women in the U.S. — the relation between the professional and the personal.

The filmmakers proceeded in an exemplary fashion from the start of the project, when they moved to the site community for a couple of years in order to acquaint themselves thoroughly with life there. And at the end of the film, they list the townspeople and organizations that helped them in credits which Hanson rightly describes as almost as long as the phonebook. The film premiered in the town of Virginia on the Range, a further sign of how responsible the filmmakers felt toward these communities. WILDROSE clearly has its heart in the right place. Yet I don't think that is enough.

WILDROSE was shot in seven weeks at a cost of approximately one and a half million dollars. It's a tiny sum by Hollywood standards but a lot of money for an independent production. Understandably a filmmaker embarking on such a project might become cautious or overcautious. In a media world of compromises and sensationalism, Hanson has accomplished a lot. Yet WILDROSE lacks the vitality and daring that compensate for many independent productions' roughness, including NORTHERN LIGHTS, Hanson's first feature (made with Rob Nilsson).

Hanson has said in an interview that in WILDROSE he consciously ruled out trying to be inventive. I assume he meant "innovative" in the sense of technically or cinematically original. In any case, the film's originality lies mainly in its attempt to avoid as many of Hollywood film's objectionable aspects as possible. That via negativa could lead to filmmaking radically different from Hollywood-style production. It can also lead, as WILDROSE for the most part demonstrates, to relatively conventional filmmaking, purged only of excess sex or violence. Hanson falls back on an old-fashioned kind of love story about two people "made for each other." If it takes a while for their affection to become evident, their transformation from initial dislike to love, far from being surprising or dramatic, is predictable and has been seen in many Hollywood films.


WILDROSE, however, aims to do more than just entertain. In fact, the film's most serious problem arises directly out of its earnest good intentions. In their effort to be morally and politically correct, the filmmakers have fallen into a familiar trap. They made a film that is at times little more than the acting-out of an ideological diagram. These days, films that aspire to seriousness keep running into trouble. Almost by definition, a Serious Film deals with an Issue and therefore Makes a Statement. Even WILDROSE, which does everything possible to disguise its political underpinnings, remains fatally wounded by the way in which it is a Relationships Film about a Single Working Woman faced with an Important Decision, bothered by an Abusive Husband, supported by a Mentor-Survivor, and unsure about how to deal with a Caring but Nevertheless Independent Man. In other words, WILDROSE, like most serious films, is beset by what might be called the demon of overdetermination. Everything seems transparently allegorical. Apart for its use of amateur actors, WILDROSE is not far removed from Hollywood melodramas, ORDINARY PEOPLE or COUNTRY, or the best social-problem made-for-TV movies.

WILDROSE suffers from uneven acting, directing, and especially screenwriting. Hollywood actors — but not major stars — were used for the leads, supported by a few professional actors from the Twin Cities. The rest of the parts were played by amateurs drawn from the community. This approach inevitably limited Hanson's dramatic options even as it may have buttressed his claims to realism or to a satisfactory relation with the community. Moreover, in attempting to capture his characters' Midwestern restraint, Hanson has run up against a kind of understatement that does not come off as dramatic unless captured perfectly. I admire Lisa Eichorn's performance for its seeming authenticity, free of "hype" or glamour and all the more attractive for it. But that performance is not easy to read.

There is fine sensitivity at work in many of the scenes with the secondary characters. The movie is all but stolen by 80-year old Lydia Olson who looks like an aged Linda Hunt and plays Katri, obviously the survivor figure and June's mentor. Katri is awarded the key last line of the film: "A woman has to listen to her own voice." We see equally good minor encounters between June and her parents  — her mother thinks June is taking jobs away from men — and between June and Rick's family when they all get introduced to each other during a fishboil.

Hanson is at his best with informal banter and low-key scenes. When he tries to go for the big scene, however, he gets into trouble. Most notably the film has a disappointing lovemaking scene, when June's "problem" — that is, her former husband, Billy — gets introduced. And there's a contrived climactic scene in which Billy comes in drunk and after a battle June triumphantly throws him out. These scenes attempt a pair of tricky reversals, replacing sensationalistic sex scenes with anti-sexist love scenes, gratuitous or macho violence with defensive counter-violence.

Hanson does not seem to have a satisfactory answer to the question of how one combines mainstream Hollywood production values with alternative approaches to storytelling. With relatively little sex and violence to propel the narrative, the film falls back on picturesque photography — e.g. the fishing boat on the lake — and stagy confrontations demonstrating ideological positions. One can hear the filmmakers saying, "We need a scene to show what it means to have an abusive husband. We'll have the woman building a log cabin in the woods as a symbol of her struggle to live her own life." (Hanson said that he put the log cabin in simply because many single women on the Iron Range are building them. But in the context of the broader culture, its use suggests a perfect yuppie fantasy for the 80s, a trendy variation on Virginia Woolf's thesis that creative women need a room of their own.)


Since the two main figures are obviously compatible no matter what the initial tensions, the film's real drama arises from two other sources of tension — both political issues. First, there is the problem of male sexism as represented by the leering, goading co-workers at the mine and by the former husband. And second, there is the instability of the economic situation in the mine (open pit, not deep shaft).

Because WILDROSE's script deals with an abusive husband and overt sexism in the workplace, it is an important achievement. But it makes its argument less telling by creating villains easy to write off as Cro-Magnon creeps. Their sexism stands outright on the surface. The film would have made a greater contribution if it had dramatized the kinds of sexism that are not immediately apparent. For example, this brief exchange at a union meeting illustrates the film's problem. One of June's chauvinist co-workers suggests that the easiest solution to the economic crisis would be to get the women out of the mine. His sidekick then says, "That's the stupidest thing I ever heard. That's got nothing to do with the issues." Such a mechanical exchange leaves the movie with its didacticism showing. It also stops far short of providing any significant comment upon either sexism or the economic "issues."

Hanson now believes that he erred by not concentrating more on the organizer's wife in NORTHERN LIGHTS. (There was one high-pitched scene in which she complained about her lot.) In WILDROSE, however, Hanson has not simply shifted from "politics" to "relationships" or abandoned traditional politics for sexual politics. He said,

"The main theme isn't workers and management struggling … I was interested in the problems created between men and women when they are working together in an industrial situation and trying to have a relationship."[1]

This sounds at first like a rejection of the classical (and crude?) foundation for political, i.e., Marxist, filmmaking — an economic and social exposition of class struggle. Hanson wants to apply a more comprehensive definition of politics — in Hanson's terms, one that covers all human relations, not just organizational structures. Yet Hanson keeps a key element of the classical model. He chooses an industrial situation, with blue-collar workers at the center of the action. And obvious indications of his politics remain, as in this bit of changing-room dialogue at the mine:

"Heard anything?"
"Oh, they never tell us anything."
"That's for sure."

The scene then shifts to a woman crying in front of her locker: she has been told she is three days short of the seventy she would have needed to avoid being laid off.

In films as in real life, the issue of who in U.S. society is or considers him or herself a worker remains unclear (leaving aside such obvious balderdash as White House Chief of Staff Donald Regan's statement when he was Secretary of the Treasury that people making $50,000 a year or more — l0% of the population —  are "middle-class" and all others are "working people").

Clearly Hanson focuses primarily on the traditional working class and has broken new ground only by introducing a woman worker. Hanson traces the mine's closing no farther up the corporate ladder than to the foreman who must tell the workers about the lay-offs. Hanson doesn't really explore the relation between the miners and the other townspeople. As usual in movies, nobody talks national and international politics — discussing politicians or political parties or even the day's news.

In showing Rick going to work on his own boat out of Bayfleld, Hanson presents an idealized projection of economic independence and rugged male individualism. It's worthy of a Camel cigarette ad, in spite of Rick's comments about how cold and rough the lake can get in winter. When Ogaard is forced to return to fishing instead of working in the mine, he also lands in the best of all possible briar patches. By way of contrast, we see a scene in a bar where a former antagonist tells June that he's been to Arizona and not found work, or again a female friend telling June that she's going to Oklahoma: "There's nothing up here. The Range is dead."

"I'm staying right here," June replies, and she tells Rick why later. "It's not just a job. The Range is my home." The sentiment and the determination with which June speaks ring true, yet such few cut-and-dried lines do not lead to the audience's more complex or profound awareness of the problem or, more to the point, to successful drama.

The continued hard times on the Iron Range really do threaten the existence of a community with a rich social heritage. Many people have lost not just their houses but their homes. Yet I suspect that at the time of its release (June '84) WILDROSE was already out of key with the larger public's perception of the economy as "prosperity," however shaky it was and however much poverty, unemployment, and suffering the rosy Reagan version of that "prosperity" has concealed. WILDROSE seems clearly a product of the unproclaimed recession of 1982 and 1983, although the original script indicated full employment and was changed only after the major layoffs started. Mine workers and other industrial laborers have not received the recent media attention farmers have. Perhaps industrial workers have always been regarded ambivalently, without the aura that surrounds the family farm. That is one reason among many why WILDROSE did not attain even the limited success of Hollywood's recent farm films, with all their weaknesses.

In fact, none of the current spate of films about economic hard times and the stressed human relations that result come close the power of John Ford's THE GRAPES OF WRATH or HOW GREEN WAS MY VALLEY. This is due to changed historical circumstances and changed artistic possibilities (apart from the fact that few directors have Ford's skill). Possibly archetypal, representative families and figures no longer convince because such fictional representations seldom match the immediacy and power of newspaper and television documentary reports.

Like Wayne Wang's CHAN IS MISSING, WILDROSE suggests a disguised documentary. Wang built his investigation of life in San Francisco's Chinatown around the search for Chan conducted by an odd couple of an old taxi driver and his young sidekick. Similarly, Hanson uses a love story as the basis for his portrait of Iron Range life, repeatedly introducing bits of local color: a Fourth of July parade, the fish boil, a polka Mass. These elements reflect the vision of a curious, if sympathetic outsider; they are not well integrated into the film. Les Blank wouldn't pass up a juicy subject like a polka Mass either, but in a documentary that kind of thing can exist on its own in a way that it cannot in a fictional work. In NASHVILLE and TENDER MERCIES the baptism scenes do work in the narrative, as do the wedding in THE DEERHUNTER and the barnraising in WITNESS. But in WILDROSE the documentary and the fictional never coalesce.

THE DEERHUNIER and WILDROSE bear comparison because they both focus on working-class ethnic communities and their rituals. THE DEERHUNTER is more violent and artificial, and racist to boot, but it also offers a far more moving glimpse of community. Because of the war, the characters have more at stake, and the love story is far more intense because it does not include a simple villain like the abusive Billy.

As WILDROSE avoids Hollywood's sexism, gratuitous violence, and escapism, it does not always avoid boredom. Maybe Hollywood's "Kiss kiss bang bang" blockbusters have made it difficult for audiences to accept smaller, quieter films. Nevertheless, I think Hanson would have been better off making an even more patient, deliberate, observant kind of film — a kind of film requiring the greatest subtlety and artistic skill to accomplish. Victor Nuñez's early short, CHARLES BENSON'S RETURN TO THE SEA, and Wayne Wang's DIM SUM, which acknowledges its debt to Ozu, do this. On the other hand, Hanson might have tried to make a livelier, no-holds-barred film, though that might have required a greater willingness to experiment with the narrative and perhaps the use of an all-professional cast.

In the scale of the production, WILDROSE does mark a clear step forward from NORTHERN LIGHTS. Yet often the camera setups dissipate some scenes' energy, as with a quarrel played out in the street to the neighbors' surprise and bewilderment. Other times, the use of slow-motion seems "artsy" and some of the images of the landscape are all too refined, leaving me wanting less scenery and more drama. I realize Hanson is showing the effect of the environment upon the characters. The Range provides a striking combination of beautiful scenery and images of the mines' devastation and power. Mines frequently loom up in the background, even behind a parade or softball game. Still, no scene excited me as much as the threshing sequence in NORHTERN LIGHTS; no scene moved me as much as the shot of the father in the same film, drinking and singing beneath a scarecrow with the wind howling on the soundtrack.

Ending on freeze-frame, WILDROSE leaves the outcome of the lovers' personal situation up in the air although, as Hanson has said, it seems likely that they will work out their problems and somehow manage to get together in the future. This reassuring suggestion is perfectly in keeping with the warm-hearted attitude taken by the director throughout. Yet it also perhaps indicates the underlying sentimentality of the movie, its unwillingness to admit the possibility of personal or communal failure, to be truly open-ended.

The final credits roll over an aerial shot that takes us rapidly over the town. Like the opening shot of THE DAY AFTER this image is emotionally powerful, not just because it grabs the viewer like a Cinerama rollercoaster ride but because of what it suggests about the plenitude of life down below. WILDROSE never quite matches the energy and richness of that shot; it never quite puts the whole community together convincingly.

WILDROSE's strength lies in its fundamental decency and its low-key, modest approach to filmmaking. John Hanson has gone from a short documentary to a black and white feature film looking like a documentary (both done with Rob Nilsson) to a longer feature shot in color. He has not gone Hollywood. He has not done TV commercials.

He says, "I can't do fluff." He has doggedly gone his own way, listening to his own voice, and I admire him for it.

Yet WILDROSE is a film more to be admired and supported for what it tries to than to be enjoyed for what it actually does.


1. The statements by John Hanson are drawn mainly from "WILDROSE: Strikes, Love, Layoffs," an interview conducted by Al Milgrom and printed in Interlock, the quarterly of the University Film Society (Minneapolis), Spring 1985, P. 4.

The comment about the film credits was made by Hanson at a screening of WILDROSE at the Cedar Theater in Minneapolis; the comment about the film's ending is in "Wildrose Director Hanson Thrilled by Reaction" by Sandy Davis, Mesabi Daily News, Sunday, April 29, 1984, two days after the film's premiere.


WILDROSE is distributed by TROMA, 733 Ninth Avenue, New York, NY, 10019. (212) 757-4555. We thank the producers, New Front Films, for the stills used with this review.